Eric Fisher is the Director of IT Enterprise Systems at GROWMARK, Inc.
Resiliency and business continuity are critical for GROWMARK as our operations affect others far beyond our own business. Our ability to protect our employees and their families in this extraordinary time directly translates into our customers being able to put essential crops in the ground, which has implications on our national and global food production and food security in the months to come.
Being an agriculture supply cooperative, GROWMARK provides agriculture retailers and businesses in the agriculture sector across the United States with everything - including fuel, seed, plant food, agronomy equipment, construction, logistics, and more.
As an organization, we are highly aware of our obligation and responsibility to the global community and the downstream effects of what we do...and don’t do. More than ever, it is now of utmost importance that our staff continue to effectively carry out their work from home. I want to highlight this with two examples that demonstrate the consequences of our work:
Refined fuel: GROWMARK supplies up to 70 percent of all the refined fuels in our rural Midwest markets. The fuel is delivered to businesses and farmers that make up so much of the local economy, but also to gas stations where we all fill up our cars to stay mobile.
Corn and soybean crops: Our farmers across Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and the rest of the Midwest produce a majority of our national corn and soybean crops. We need to continue to supply them with seed and fertilizers as they enter a busy growing season. A large portion of the crops our farmers will harvest will go to livestock operations that directly impact the meat and dairy industries and supply, and about half of all corn and soybean crops will be exported overseas.
As of this week, 98 percent of our staff are working from home and are connecting through Zscaler. All of our Internet and SaaS traffic is protected through Zscaler Internet Access (ZIA), while secure remote access to internal applications in AWS and our data center is provided through Zscaler Private Access (ZPA).
Zscaler has made this crisis response almost a non-event for our business systems and seamless for staff. While we experienced a few minor hiccups one day when Zscaler saw a 300-percent increase in global ZPA traffic overnight, this was resolved within hours when they boosted capacity by 400-percent. Since then, some of the biggest issues we as an IT team have been dealing with have been the proper use of “out of office” messages in Microsoft Exchange, and providing employees who are affected by the lack of internet connectivity in rural areas with 4G hotspots. I would say we are in great shape - technologically - considering the circumstances.
This is especially important now when I see many of my peers and friends in IT struggle with stress, and internal technical issues at work simply because their organizations are not able to offer a solid remote access solution for employees. Having the right IT architecture in place has never been more important.
Unprecedented situations like these highlight the need for IT teams and their organizations to rethink how we enable our workforce to work in an interconnected world. Allow me to share my advice on how to enable your business moving forward:
- Get out of the business of operating data centers and focus on helping the business understand how to use technology to improve operations, cost, and profitability---and even tap into new markets.
- Move as fast as possible to become more resilient and use the technology available to get your servers and data out of your legacy data center and into the cloud.
- Provide your employees with the possibility to work from a safe location--wherever that might be--in the case of an emergency, a natural disaster (tornadoes, flood, earthquakes, etc.), or a public health crisis.
- To reduce your attack surface, given the new level of sophistication of attacks, reduce your public-facing applications and interfaces wherever possible and on limiting their accessibility to the open internet.
To address this last point, we implemented the concept of zero trust network access (ZTNA) with Zscaler Private Access at GROWMARK. Surprisingly, I had a staff member come to me to say they really appreciated the remote access solution we had deployed---right after we rolled out ZPA. I have never had that kind of feedback about a security tool and doubt you have either. To the majority of our staff, the inner workings of the technology itself is magic, but they love it because it simply works as they expect—even with a poor connection.
It takes leadership and teamwork to transform your organization into a cloud-first and mobile-first enterprise, but the benefits you’ll reap from it are worth every step of the process.
For me and my IT colleagues, this has meant playing an indispensable role in helping employees work from home -- and enabling critical business operations during trying times for GROWMARK, our customers, and the community that depends on us.
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